John Tavares is such a down-to-earth guy, such a hard worker, such an unassuming teammate that it is easy to forget that he is among a small handful of the greatest hockey players in the world. He is the biggest reason the Islanders are relevant again, that they have had successive 100-point seasons, that they are in a postseason that began with a wild Tavares-centric win last night.
It would be a shame if the Islanders cannot help him win a playoff series before much longer. They owe him one.
Not that he is the whole show. He would be the absolute last to suggest such a thing. But there are not a whole lot of NHL stars who are more important to their respective teams than Tavares, 25, is to the Islanders.
“Best player in the league,” teammate Travis Hamonic said. “I’ve said that a lot. I see him every day and I’m glad he’s on our side. He’s a heck of a player. The last handful of games he’s been carrying us and tonight was no different.”
For an instant, the night looked terribly different for the Islanders. In the scariest moment of the season, early in the second period, Taveras was hit in the foot by a Nick Leddy shot and limped into the tunnel behind the bench. He was back within three minutes.
“You just try to work off those first couple of minutes. It stings,” Tavares said later.
Again and again, he changed the tone of the whole game. While the Islanders trailed 2-1 late in the first period, he skated through the Panthers team. He faked a shot, drawing more attention, then at the last second flicked a pass to Frans Nielsen, who scored.
If that doesn’t sum up Tavares’ career with the Islanders, nothing does. He does something brilliant and someone else benefits. Then there was this, with 22 seconds left in the second: He scored to tie it again at 3.
And then this: At 2:33 of the third, he fed Kyle Okposo, who scored to put the Islanders ahead 4-3 toward a 5-4 victory. Par for the course. He is the tide that lifts the boats.
Heaven knows what he would have been like all these years with an All-Star scorer skating on his wing. Aide from the brief foray into the Thomas Vanek business, which did not work and which cost Tavares the company of his buddy Matt Moulson to boot, the Islanders have not made a major acquisition. In lieu of that, toward the end of this season, that they put their second-best center, Nielsen, on Tavares’ left wing with Okposo on the right.
Fact is, Tavares is so good that he gives the Islanders at least a puncher’s chance in every single game they play. The captain is more savvy than ever now, in his seventh season.
“He’s just one of those clutch players,” goalie Thomas Greiss said. “He has so much determination, will. He just makes things happen. He drives so hard. He won’t be stopped.”
It would be too frustrating for words if a big chunk of his prime would go by without him ever having had the reward of making it to the second round.
Tavares deflects credit. Last night, he praised Okposo’s and Nielsen’s “body of work” and called the latter “arguably the best two-way player in the league.” In his own measured manner, he added, “It’s one game. We’ve got to put it behind us and move on to the next one.”
To his credit, he never complained, even after two playoff defeats in the past three years. “We obviously put up a really good fight in both of them,” he said, “but we want to come out on the right end of this one.”
Everyone else in the Islanders organization owes it to the captain to make that happen.